God's Country tells the complete story of Christian Zionism in American political and religious thought from the Puritans to 9/11. Combining original research with insights from the work of historians of American religion, Samuel Goldman provides an accessible yet provocative introduction to Americans' attachment to the State of Israel.
2018 | 248 pages | Cloth $34.95
American History / Religion / Political Science
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Table of Contents
PART I. THE WILDERNESS AND THE EAGLE
Chapter 1. All Israel Shall Be Saved: The Calling of the Jews and the Errand into the Wilderness
Chapter 2. On Eagles' Wings: Jewish Restoration and the American Republic
PART II. AMERICAN CYRUS
Chapter 3. Gather Yourselves Together: From Restorationism to Zionism
Chapter 4. I Will Not Utterly Destroy the House of Jacob: Liberal Protestantism and the Partition of Palestine
PART III. GOD'S COUNTRY
Chapter 5. The God of the Armies of Israel: Zionism and Judeo-Christian Civilization
Chapter 6. I Will Bless Those Who Bless You: Zionism and the Christian Right
On March 4, 2002, Senator James Inhofe rose to address the United States Senate on the topic of peace in the Middle East. The occasion was a proposal by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, under which Arab states would normalize relations with Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from territories occupied after the Six-Day War and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Inhofe argued against American endorsement of the deal. "If this is something that Israel wants to do, it is their business to do it," Inhofe said. "But anyone who has tried to put the pressure on Israel to do this is wrong."
Inhofe explained that it would be wrong to put pressure on the Jewish State because "Israel is entitled to the land they have. . . . [I]t should not be a part of the peace process." To support that entitlement, Inhofe adduced several reasons, including the record of Jewish settlement in the region, the persecution suffered by Jews around the world, and strategic considerations related to the War on Terror. Less than a year after 9/11, the Oklahoma Republican insisted that "we need every ally we can get. If we do not stop terrorism in the Middle East, it will be on our shores."
Yet Inhofe's ultimate rationale was not based on history, humanitarianism, or strategic considerations. In a final argument, he proposed that "we ought to support Israel" and oppose territorial adjustments because "it has a right to the land. This is the most important reason: Because God said so." Quoting Gen. 13:14-15, in which God promises Abraham that all the land he sees will belong to his descendants, Inhofe concluded: "This is not a political battle at all. It is a contest over whether or not the word of God is true."
Inhofe's view of the relationship between the United States and Israel is not unusual among religious conservatives. Just a few weeks after Inhofe's speech on the Senate floor, the Christian Coalition organizer and GOP official Ralph Reed argued in the Los Angeles Times that "there is no greater proof of God's sovereignty in the world today than the survival of the Jews and the existence of Israel." Like Inhofe, Reed denied that theological concerns are the only reason "Christians and other conservative people of faith stand so firmly in their support of Israel." Nevertheless, he acknowledged that their "support for Israel derives from the simple fact that its land was the cradle both of Judaism and Christianity. . . . [T]here is an undeniable and powerful spiritual connection between Israel and the Christian faith." It would be easy to cite more examples. In the century's first decade, it was not only elected officials and party activists who explained that their views of international politics rest on divine promises. Ministerial leaders made similar claims. According to John Hagee, pastor of the Cornerstone megachurch in San Antonio, the Book of Genesis is nothing less than "God's foreign-policy statement."
In 2006, Hagee put his beliefs into practice by founding Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which claims membership of more than a million. Beyond its vast mailing list, CUFI's Summits in Washington and Nights to Honor Israel around the country have attracted participation from influential figures in both Israeli and U.S. politics. Christians have also played important collaborative roles with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other pro-Israel groups. In their controversial book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, political scientists John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt argue that American Christians—mostly, but not exclusively, evangelical Protestants—are integral members of a coalition that uses a combination of public pressure, voter mobilization, and campaign donations to influence U.S. foreign policy. Like a growing number of writers, they describe these energetic supporters of the Jewish State as "Christian Zionists."
It is tough to define "Christian Zionist." According to historian Shalom Goldman, the term was coined by Theodor Herzl to describe the Swiss banker Jean Henri Dunant, who achieved fame as founder of the Red Cross and attended the First Zionist Conference in 1897. Dunant received a Calvinist education but offered primarily humanitarian and moral arguments for a Jewish state. When Herzl described Dunant as a Christian Zionist, he seems to have meant that Dunant was a European non-Jew sympathetic to Zionism.
The Zionist intellectual Nahum Sokolow used the term in a similar way. In his History of Zionism, 1600-1918, Sokolow applied it to the British army officer George Gawler, who acted as traveling companion to Moses Montefiore during the Jewish philanthropist's 1849 visit to Ottoman Palestine. In 1845, Gawler had published a tract that proposed the establishment of a Jewish colony there. Although Gawler apparently experienced an evangelical conversion as a young man, his arguments were more political than religious.
For most of the twentieth century, the formulation "Christian Zionist" was rarely seen on this side of the Atlantic. The scholar Stephen Spector finds it was not until 1980 that "Christians who call themselves Zionists" made their debut in the New York Times. In this context—a report of the foundation of an organization called the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem—the emphasis was on religion rather than politics. Reflecting the unfamiliarity of the link, the headline placed the term in quotation marks.
As Spector observes, neither approach to explaining what it means to be a "Christian Zionist" is satisfying. Definitions like Herzl's pay insufficient attention to religious concerns. By treating "Christian" as a synonym for "Gentile," they downplay the role of beliefs about the inextricable connection between Christian faith, the Jewish people, and the Land of Israel. Many non-Jews have supported Zionism and Israel for a variety of reasons. But they have not all been Christian Zionists.
More restrictive definitions, on the other hand, associate Christian Zionists too closely with specific theological commitments. Journalist Victoria Clark, for example, argues that Christian Zionists believe that the Bible is literally true and gives Jews a right to sovereignty over all the lands promised to Abraham. As the quotations from Senator Inhofe suggest, there are Christian Zionists who meet this description. Yet it excludes professed Christians who support Israel today or have endorsed Zionist projects in the past on the basis of very different understandings of God's word and will.
All definition is, to some extent, arbitrary. The important question is not whether a particular verbal tag covers all conceivable cases, but whether it provides a basis for further inquiry. With that consideration in mind, this book follows Spector in using the term "Christian Zionist" to describe supporters of a Jewish state in some portion of the biblical Promised Land who draw their main inspiration from Christian beliefs, doctrines, or texts. Christian Zionism, in turn, refers to those motives, authorities, and sources. This flexible approach to definition will be vindicated if the book sheds light on the thought and actions of Christians who played an important role in justifying, promoting, and even inspiring Zionism in its more familiar sense.
Where does Christian Zionism come from? Mearsheimer and Walt join a considerable number of scholars who derive Christian Zionism from the theological movement known as premillennial dispensationalism. The basic idea of premillennial dispensationalism is that history is composed of stages that culminate in the return of Jesus Christ to establish the millennium—the thousand-year reign of peace described by the Book of Revelation. This idea was systematized in the mid-nineteenth century by the Anglo-Irish theologian John Nelson Darby and promoted in the United States by evangelists including Dwight Moody and Cyrus I. Scofield.
The anticipation of a personal Second Coming is not what sets premillennial dispensationalism apart from many other Christian eschatologies. Its most distinctive feature is the sequence of events that it places in the period immediately preceding Christ's return to set up the millennial kingdom. Drawing on prophecies from the Old Testament as well as Revelation, the dispensationalist timeline includes the return of the Jews to their land, so-called Rapture of the faithful directly into heaven, and an escalating series of upheavals culminating in the battle of Armageddon. Early expositors described these aspects of premillennial dispensationalism in rather vague terms. But they have received vivid and detailed depiction in more recent works, including the 1970s best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind novels coauthored by Christian Right activist Tim LaHaye.
John Nelson Darby wrote decades before the establishment of the organized Zionist movement and disclaimed interest in politics. But many Christians influenced by his teachings number the location and condition of the Jewish people among the "signs of the times" that mark steps toward the completion of God's plan. According to journalist Gershom Gorenberg, "for those who accept the dispensationalist doctrine, as so many evangelicals do, it's natural to proclaim love of the Jewish State. Israel's existence gives a believer the warm feeling that the world is behaving as he or she expects it to." As Gorenberg emphasizes, that love has a dark side. Dispensationalists describe the period leading up to the Second Coming as a grim "tribulation." During this phase, they foresee increasing disorder, war, and pestilence. All who are not Raptured suffer these calamities, but Jews and Israel are subject to particularly intense suffering. In some versions of the story, the majority of the world's Jews perish before Christ returns.
These accounts promise Jewish survivors of the tribulation an honored place in the millennial kingdom, but only if they recognize Jesus as their promised Messiah. Although they believe God preserved the Jewish people and guided them home, dispensationalists see Jews as tragically misguided and in need of Christ's love. One function of the tribulation is to separate those willing to accept the divine truth from those sunk in error. It is not only Jews who can find something to fear in this scenario. Christ's rule in the millennium means the end of life as we know it. Premillennial dispensationalism is a complicated movement with several variants, so there are exceptions to any generalization. But it can reasonably be characterized as a pessimistic creed that sees human society as doomed to destruction.
The lurid nature of these apocalyptic expectations has generated something of a critical genre. In books with titles that invoke the battle of Armageddon, academics and journalists alike have attempted to explain how premillennial dispensationalists came to understand themselves as friends of Jews and Israel. Such works typically acknowledge the sincerity of dispensationalists' affection. At the same time, they warn Israelis, Jews, and Americans of all faiths that this enthusiasm could be a mixed blessing. According to theologian Timothy P. Weber, dispensationalists' beliefs "make them skeptical about and sometimes even opposed to efforts to bring peace to the Middle East. Such behavior helps create the kind of world that dispensationalists have been predicting, a world in which they do not expect they will have to live."
Even when they hinge on the meaning of obscure texts, studies of the relation between premillennial dispensationalism and Christian Zionism are not just scholastic wrangling. In practice, they serve as political verdicts on Christian Zionism as a whole. To attribute their support for the State of Israel to unsettling eschatological visions is to depict Christian Zionists as a radical and potentially subversive influence on the United States, Israel, the Middle East, and the world. To determine whether that assessment is accurate, we need to evaluate the history on which it is based.
Dispensationalist ideas play a crucial role in encouraging favorable attitudes toward Israel among America's conservative Protestants. Particularly after the Six-Day War, tracking signs of the times in the Middle East became something of an obsession among fundamentalists and evangelicals. This obsession was both reflected and encouraged by the pop-apocalyptic literature that includes The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind novels. To that extent, the attention they have received is justified.
Yet it is important not to exaggerate the importance of premillennial dispensationalism. Recent scholarship has identified problems with what might be called the standard narrative of Christian Zionism. These criticisms do not deny the influence of Darby and his popularizers. But they suggest that the story is more complicated than most writers have acknowledged. For one thing, the close association between premillennial dispensationalism and activism on behalf of Israel is a fairly recent development. Dispensationalist leaders expressed abstract approval for the Jewish State before 1967. Yet few considered it necessary to take practical measures on its behalf. This distanced attitude was actually part of Darby's legacy. Although he looked forward to the fulfillment of the prophecies, Darby denied that politics could hasten or replace divine intervention.
Before the Reagan administration, in fact, the most visible American Christian supporters of the Zionist movement and, later, the State of Israel were theological liberals who rejected dispensationalism. Rather than waiting for an apocalyptic future, they argued that Christians had a responsibility to seek religious and political reconciliation with the Jewish people here and now. Reinhold Niebuhr was the most prominent representative of this forgotten strand of Christian Zionism, but his efforts were far from lonely. On the basis of extensive archival research, historian Caitlin Carenen has shown that it was mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics rather than evangelicals or fundamentalists who built the original institutional structure for the alliance between the Zionist movement, the State of Israel and American Christians.
Another problem with the standard narrative is that its key eschatological features were not invented by Darby. The idea that the Jews are destined to return to the Promised Land and play a leading role in the millennium—albeit in a converted state—has been widespread among American Protestants for centuries. No less an authority than Jonathan Edwards wrote that "it is the more evident, that the Jews will return to their own land again, because they never have yet possessed one quarter of that land, which was so often promised them, from the Red Sea to the river Euphrates." While he was a postmillennialist who expected Christ's return after the millennium, Edwards foresaw that a Jerusalem inhabited by descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would be the capital of the kingdom of God.
The religion scholar Robert O. Smith has traced this brand of "Judeo-centric prophecy interpretation" back to the Protestant Reformation. But the Reformation was an attempt to recover themes that emerged in the earliest era of the Christian religion. According to theologian Gerald R. McDermott, "Christian Zionism is at least eighteen centuries older than dispensationalism." In the most basic sense, McDermott argues, the story of Christian Zionism begins with the church itself.
Historical challenges to the standard narrative have placed Christian Zionism in a broader perspective. Rather than an odd and alarming fringe movement, it now appears to be a product of millennia of reflection on the relationships between the Old and New Testaments, Jews and Christians, religion and politics. This observation does not, by itself, amount to a normative defense: not everything old is good. But it does mean that there is more thought and argument behind Christian Zionism than depictions of Armageddon-mad fanatics would suggest. Theological debates and biblical sources are just one dimension of Christian Zionism, moreover. Ideas linked to Christian Zionism also played an important role in the development of American political thought. Since the foundation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, many Americans have articulated our collective purpose by means of an analogy with biblical Israel. Proposing a recurring image, John Winthrop wrote: "We shall finde that the God of Isreall is among us, when tenn of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when hee shall make us a prayse and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantacions: the lord make it like that of New England: for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hille, the eies of all people are upon uss."
A popular interpretation of this analogy holds that Christian America replaced Israel in God's favor. As the Lord elected Israel to serve Him in biblical times, so He selected America to do His work in the modern age. On this account, a powerful current of American thought is based on what scholars call supersessionism, or (pejoratively) replacement theology. In other words, American Christians are seen as taking over the role of God's chosen people.
Nationalist supersessionism received powerful statements, some of which are still remembered and quoted today. Ezra Stiles, the minister and Hebrew scholar who served as president of Yale College during the Revolution and early republic, went so far as to describe his country as "God's American Israel." But a closer look at the sources reveals the metaphor's limits. Stiles took a cue from Winthrop and other Puritan writers in suggesting that America could be like biblical Israel. He did not claim that it replaced Israel in God's favor. On the contrary, Stiles insisted that "the future prosperity and splendor of the United States" was a step toward the time when "the words of Moses, hitherto accomplished but in part, will be literally fulfilled; when this branch of the posterity of Abraham shall be nationally collected, and become a very distinguished and glorious people." For Stiles, divine sanction for American nationalism was premised on God's continuing relationship with the original chosen people.
Stiles's rhetoric shows how American exceptionalism can be intertwined with Christian Zionism. By enlisting the United States in the cause of Jewish return, Christian Zionism can help connect American history and institutions to a biblical narrative in which they do not directly appear. Not all Christian Zionists, let alone all Christians, are comfortable with this entanglement. But the popularity of belief that God has organized history around two peoples, the biblical Old Israel and the analogical New Israel, is among the reasons Christian Zionism continues to flourish in America while it has virtually disappeared from former strongholds like the United Kingdom.
Rather than a unitary movement defined by specific articles of faith, Christian Zionism is best understood as a kind of elective affinity among theological, historical, and political themes. The first of these themes is covenant. In exchange for a commitment to obey Him, the biblical Lord promises to make Abraham's descendants a great people and to provide them with a geographic home that extends, at maximum, from the Nile to the Euphrates, and at minimum, from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates.
Not all Christian Zionists interpret God's covenant with Abraham in the same way. Especially controversial is the issue of whether Jews must convert to Christianity before they enjoy all the blessings they were promised. Despite disagreement on this controversial matter, Christian Zionists take covenant seriously. Even when they believe that Jewish conversion is inevitable, they insist that God maintains an ongoing relationship with the people and the Land of Israel. Many find a source for this belief in Saint Paul's vehement denial that God "cast away His people" after the advent of Christ (Rom. 11:1).
A second theme in Christian Zionism provides a link between the biblical past and times yet to come. The people of Israel never possessed the entirety of the Promised Land and were, for many centuries, substantially removed from it. Prophecy extends covenant into the future by suggesting that God will bring back the Jews from exile and restore them to their appointed home. Before the nineteenth century, this was very much a prediction. Since then, successive waves of Jewish emigration to Ottoman Palestine, the organization of the international Zionist movement, the establishment of the State of Israel, and the conquest of additional portions of the Promised Land have seemed to fulfill ancient visions. As with covenant, there is controversy among Christian Zionists about how these developments should be interpreted. But they agree that the events of the last century or two suggest that God is guiding history toward the fulfillment of commitments recorded in the Bible.
A third theme in Christian Zionism, particularly as it has developed in the United States, emphasizes the present. Even if they doubt the truth of the Bible or the reality of divine providence, many Americans retain an affinity for Zionist aspirations and the State of Israel based on an ostensibly shared heritage. They see the Jewish State as a refuge from persecution, an outpost of Judeo-Christian civilization and a bastion of liberal democracy. Niebuhr called on this theme when he urged Americans to answer threats to Israel with an affirmation that "we will not allow 'any nation so conceived and so dedicated to perish from the earth.'" The reference, of course, is to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which culminates in a description of the United States as a nation under God, called to ensure the survival of government of, by, and for the people.
Appeals to cultural and political resemblance may exceed the bounds of Christian Zionism. Rather than evoking traditional faith or theology, they sound more like expressions of an American civil religion. The legitimacy of Christian Zionism in its more expansive dimensions is a subject of vociferous debate among writers of various denominational and theological perspectives. For some critics, the distinctively American version of Christian Zionism even represents a heretical departure from core Christian doctrines.
The argument of this book is primarily descriptive. Whether or not it is doctrinally justified—which is a question for qualified religious authorities—the claim here is only that belief in a unique connection between these two peoples and their states is deeply embedded in the American imagination. And not only among conservative evangelicals. In Honor the Promise, an appeal for Christian support of Israel published in 1977, the Catholic priest and liberal Democratic congressman Robert Drinan asserted the existence of a "profound bond" that extends from the shores of Massachusetts Bay to modern Jerusalem.
The themes that comprise Christian Zionism are more like the tributaries of one river than independent currents. Sometimes they flow away from each other. Farther along their courses, they overlap again. These intersections make it challenging to impose sharp boundaries between schools of thought or political movements but do not belie the categories themselves. If the politics of the Middle East teach us anything, it is the difficulty of imposing legible maps on challenging terrain.
This book is an essay in the history of ideas, not a policy brief. Even so, readers are likely to wonder where its author stands in the fraught landscape that he attempts to chart. Because suspicion of bad faith is a perennial obstacle to discussion of the vexed connections between religion and politics, questions about the perspectives that inform this book deserve explicit responses. To answer succinctly, the author of this book is not a Christian or a believer in the literal fulfillment of prophecy. Instead, he is a minimally observant Jew who admires Israel but considers America his country. In international relations, the author thinks that Israeli and American interests, while frequently allied, are not identical. A mature relationship demands that citizens of each state acknowledge, and respect, the possibility of divergence between them. Regarding the disposition of territories over which Israel won control in 1967, the author hesitates to join the ranks of armchair diplomats. Although he regards different states for different peoples as the most desirable outcome, he has no brilliant plan for achieving a goal that continues to elude the parties directly concerned.
The author can be described as conservative in several respects, but these opinions place him to the "left" of many, although not all, Christian Zionists. So why write about them? To begin with, this book is a contribution to what the scholar Stephen Prothero calls "religious literacy." Despite religion's central role in our national life, Americans are astonishingly ignorant of the textual sources, historical figures, and key concepts that constitute even the most influential traditions. Lacking important information and any common vocabulary, we tend to get confused and alienated when we encounter unfamiliar practices and beliefs. This tendency seems particularly acute when it comes to Zionism and the State of Israel. In many cases, secular and religious Americans, Zionists and non-Zionists, Jews and Christians, mainliners and evangelicals confront each other in mutual incomprehension and even hostility.
Common knowledge is no guarantee of agreement. Yet understanding where our interlocutors are coming from can assist us in civil discussion. In a pluralistic society, we are unlikely ever to speak the same language of politics. We have a better chance of resolving our disputes—or reaching respectful acknowledgment of our differences—if we become at least conversationally multilingual.
On one level, then, this book is aimed at readers who want to learn more about Christian Zionism but have little background in theology, history, or political theory—let alone all of these fields. In trying to anticipate and address their questions, it draws liberally and gratefully on an expert literature without which it could not have been written. Academic incentives point toward specialization and novelty, while public discourse calls for synthesis and generalization. Intended to accomplish a civic purpose, this book risks erring in the latter direction.
At the same time, the book advances a suggestion aimed more directly at scholars. The proposal on this level is that Christian Zionism is an exercise in the style of thought known as political theology. According to theorist Mark Lilla, political theology is "a discourse about political authority based on a revealed divine nexus." In other words, it is a way of thinking about the order and purpose of politics oriented by God's will.
Political theology was the basic form of political thought for much of the history of Western civilization. Since the nineteenth century, it has become less familiar to scholars—partly because a Ph.D. is no guarantee of religious literacy. But the reduced prominence of political theology in academic circles does not mean that it is a relic of the benighted past. Outside universities, it remains very much alive. The legal scholar Paul Kahn notes that "political theology must be more than a genealogical inquiry if it is to be more than a passing curiosity. It becomes interesting just to the degree that these concepts continue to support an actual theological dimension in our political practices." The persistence of Christian Zionism shows that we need not look far for such a dimension.
Last but not least, the author wrote this book for himself. Confronted with a phenomenon that he found at once provocative and confusing, he set out to understand it better. Unable to find the guide for the perplexed that he was looking for, he decided to write one, learning as he went along. Whatever success he achieves, he hopes that the same spirit of respectful inquiry will encourage further and doubtless more skillful attempts.